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To collect a greater percentage of unpaid child support, state must fund transition to a better system

I’m a county law librarian. A typical day starts with a box of tissue on my desk and a neutral demeanor carefully placed on my face. If you heard what I listen to every day, you’d want both too.

“I can’t understand why he won’t support his children.”

“I lost my job and I need to lower my child support.”

“I want to pay zero child support.”

Why are these people coming to me? They can’t afford a lawyer. With fewer free and low-cost legal services available, public law libraries are increasingly serving unrepresented parents by providing court forms, procedural assistance, and many times a shoulder to cry on.

I do my best to be the law library version of Switzerland, believe me. But occasionally, even I have my moments. For instance, whenever someone tells me he or she wants to pay zero child support, and I find myself wondering out loud what their children will eat, that’s when I know it’s time to take a vacation.

About $1.65 billion owed in back child support

But I’m the lucky one — I get to take a vacation from these problems. According to a state legislative report this year, around $1.65 billion in back child support is owed in open child-support cases.

If you think there is an easy solution — just go after these people — then you need to know more about how we collect child support and what it costs. There are many partners in the collection of child support: county attorney offices; human services; the judiciary; private employers processing child support payments; and county officials.

According to the Child Support Enforcement Division, most of the back child support is uncollectible: approximately $1.1 billion. Why? The people who owe it are on general assistance, or are in prison, or have a history of declaring bankruptcy. Or they go to Canada or Mexico or another foreign country and can’t be tracked. The vast majority — 84 percent of the total amount owed — is more than one year old.

Currently, the federal government contributes about 75 percent of the state’s total child-support-enforcement funding. The state and the counties take on the rest. If Minnesota meets certain benchmarks set by the federal government, we receive additional financial incentives. If Minnesota collects $5 in child support for every dollar it spends for enforcement, we receive extra federal money. Unfortunately, we missed out on that incentive. In fiscal year 2009, we only collected $3.71 for every dollar spent. That ranks us 45th among the states for cost effectiveness.

Texas has the best track record for cost-effectiveness. In 2009 Texas collected $9.80 for each dollar it spent. What does Texas do that we don’t? Texas centralizes child-support collections and automates certain collection procedures.

Recommendations for improvement
In 2008, Minnesota hired a consultant to review the child-support-enforcement processes and make recommendations for improvement, determining that for consistency across the counties, state administration of child support programs is the best approach. We also need more automated procedures and to streamline services.

But all of this means the Legislature needs to fund that transition to a more cost-effective system.

Some may balk at spending more money on child-support enforcement. However, with improved, cost-effective collection methods, Minnesota will qualify for further federal incentives and the counties and state ultimately will be spending less money on enforcement.

Consider that one out of four women in Minnesota is living in poverty and that part of this poverty problem is nonpayment of child support. We would save money as a state by helping mothers become financially self-sufficient. We’d also take the pressure off the court system from some of poverty’s resultant problems, including crime and juvenile delinquency.

Until then, I’ve still got my box of tissue but I’m struggling with the neutral demeanor.

Brenda Wolfe is a suburban/rural county law librarian in Minnesota.

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Comments (2)

  1. Submitted by H D on 09/07/2011 - 09:54 am.

    Couple of problems, one the states are over ganishing child support amounts from families resulting in an unbalance of power in the family, also according the the 1938 Consumer protection Act, over ganishments of employees wages by preditory creditors also increases unemployment and also reduces interstate trade. The federal funding incentives that were enacted in 1997 for welfare reform have increased divorce rates across the country and the $1.65 billion amount that is uncollected reflects that the state is clearly charging too much. These amounts and the impact this is having on our economy are being ignored by the legislature. The effective tax rate for a non custodial parent of 2 children is in the 70% tax bracket range.

    What we need is justice for our families and children like a presumption of joint physical custody and we need to get the goverment agents out of our families lives and stop rewarding them for doing the wrong things. We don’t need more automated unjust child support collection procedures that are going unchecked even by our court system, we need fair, balanced and respectful laws that take into account the real needs of the families and we need to stop supporting systems that are causing the very problems for our society. They are not the solution and we can’t trust that they have our best interests at stake.

    MN use to get the 2nd most federal reward and the trend we are heading where we are 45th now reflects that MN’s system is clearly not working. The child support system as messed up as it is luckily has a built in mechanism in is that penalizes states that have too high arrears and in a way it is working but apparently there are some confused people out there on what is really going on with the politics, laws and this fake court system that is in obvious collusion with the other beneficiaries of this pretend system of justice.

    In other words, feel free to go after me for child support if that is what you are willing to pay too or if my children actually qualify for some sort of tangile welfare benefit, otherwise leave me and my family alone and don’t expect me to pay more for my children than what they actually need.

  2. Submitted by Andrew Essen on 09/08/2011 - 04:40 pm.

    The child support system is a privately run revenue system for each state. It allows states with it’s individual county counting houses we call family and probate systems to attach themselves to a privately run federal agency. That agency assures no continued financial support or assurances for families and especially children, who despite court ordered agreements in times of extreme vulnerability or continued economic distress tsuffer the consequences of a system that is only a state revenue collector with the ability to charge interest. It is a pass through system based on Bidens formula for increasing on paper the states actual revenue income. Where do you think states get their higher credit rating from. It is not unlike me asking everyone to send me their money, then declaring to a bank that this is my income here is the proof and not only banking the interest through with holding shennanigans and the effect of possible red tape federally endorsed legal no win litigation vortices. The sad thing of course, is fathers and mothers whether they like it or not, divorced or seperated whether rich or poor will have their children automatically registered as an IV-D welfare case for governmental oversight with a continuation of a rather interesting convoluted accounting system, that may generate federal funding to the tune of 400 million a year in general undistributed funds. What is not commonly known is the method also generates additional revenue to the tune of 50 billion from MN taxpayers through enforced additional services and a quintupling of state employed workers, who in turn need feeding. While the legal system is very expensive which purports for the last four decades to have the solution but not the answer.

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